Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fall of the Mighty... A Long Way to the Bottom with Iron Man. Third Time's a What Now?

What did you say about my mother?
There was a viral video phenomenon back in 2007 - 2008 known as Two Girls One Cup.  From what I've been told, it depicted two girls each repeatedly taking turns consuming the other's shit and vomit, which, depending on your particular proclivities, was either a window into the depths of human sexual depravity or "just another Saturday night."  I, myself, never bore witness to this cultural phenomenon.  When it was described to me by others with the inevitable epilogue, "Dude, you've got to watch it for yourself," I never felt the urge to follow up on that imperative. Based on the descriptions I heard and my conscious evaluation of what might fall into my normative range of pleasurable stimuli, I decided that I wanted absolutely no part of that.  I've seen a lot of crazy shit in a variety of media, but the Two Girls One Cup video definitely seemed to fall outside the boundaries of anything I wanted to willingly subject myself to.  It was a mature decision that I was proud of, and one of the few that I look back on with absolutely no regret.

Until now.

A little while ago, I was subjected to IRON MAN 3, the cap on Marvel's Iron Man movie trilogy and its cinematic follow-up to THE AVENGERS.  There was a lot of hype built up surrounding the film, with IRON MAN 3 shattering box office records and many fans of the genre favorably comparing the movie to Joss Whedon's massively successful AVENGERS ensemble.  I wasn't holding out much hope of greatness considering Marvel's typical appeals to mediocrity, but considering the positive energy from fans surrounding the film, I thought that perhaps we'd get a decent action film that, if not on par with the first IRON MAN, would at least provide the same level of mindless entertainment as THE AVENGERS.

I should have learned my lesson with Two Girls One Cup.  I should have recognized the warning signs. "Dude, you've got to see it for yourself…"  By the time the end credits rolled on IRON MAN 3, it became apparent to me that though I had lived, I had not necessarily learned to the extent that the old axiom implied. As I sat in stunned disbelief staring at the scrolling list of names involved in this cinematic bile that I had been subjected to, I found myself trying to bargain with some cosmic force: I would gladly go back and trade the memory of IRON MAN 3 if it meant that the Two Girls One Cup video was instead indelibly etched into my brain.

And it wasn't just that IRON MAN 3 was bad.  (And it was bad.)  It was that it was flagrantly bad. With each new scene, it seemed to be openly mocking and deriding its audience.  IRON MAN 3 was the blockbuster equivalent of giving the middle finger to random strangers after robbing them. "Fuck you," it seemed to whisper, "I've got your time and your money. Fuck you…"

It was painfully bad.  From the extremely weak "villains" to the disjointed scenes cobbled together to the inexplicable and bafflingly idiotic choices made by the filmmakers and characters alike to the constant internal inconsistencies, IRON MAN 3 was a study in how to produce and mass-market shit on an extraordinary scale.  It's actually something of a marvel that the movie was able to exist in our universe, as it seemed to be pure Anti-Narrative consisting entirely of plot holes rather than plot.

One of the fundamental flaws with IRON MAN 3 is that Robert Downey Jr. - in the supposed role of Tony Stark/Iron Man - seems to have become a mere parody of himself.  Or one of his personas.  He and his Inner Circle at Marvel seem to have bought into Downey's hype in the worst way imaginable, and basically allowed him to show up, utter a few snarky lines of dialogue, and then slink off back to his trailer with blackjack and hookers.  Even if there were some evidence of a script, then it would be of a script that offered nothing so complicated that a typical high school drama student couldn't have pulled off effectively.   But, honestly, I don't think there was a script.  There may have been an outline somewhere, but I think they just let Robert Downey Jr. come to the set whenever he felt like it and say some shit and then structured the movie around his random interjections.

The really frustrating part here is that Downey Jr. can do a really great job if he's made to.  His cinematic rebirth a few years back in KISS KISS, BANG BANG showed how versatile he was.  In that movie he showed that he could slip from drama to comedy to action as easily as you or I might walk from room to room in our house or forget the birthdays and anniversaries of our loved ones.  Even in the first IRON MAN, Downey Jr. portrayed a range of emotions and actually had some consideration for, you know, entertaining and engaging the audience.

I think the issue of Downy Jr.'s self indulgence hits on an even more fundamental problem, perhaps most evident in the shitfest TRANSFORMERS 2 where the filmmakers seemed to take all of the worst elements from the first movie and dial them up to an 11 in the sequel.  Maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe it's what people want.  After all, IRON MAN 3 has become one of the highest-grossing movies of all time (not adjusted for inflation). Maybe all people want is more explosions and mindless CGI battles and an asshole-ish protagonist complete with pencil-thin, douchebag beard.

I am apparently in the minority on this one (although, being the first Marvel film to follow the wildly successful AVENGERS film probably didn't hurt it's chances for success either).  Art is pretty subjective, and it's difficult - nigh on impossible - to reasonably argue whether an artistic endeavor is quantifiably and objectively good or bad; however, I'm going to plant my flag firmly in the camp that sees IRON MAN 3 as a stinking shit wagon and the rest of the universe as still making some kind of sense.

Avenge Me, You Bastard, Avenge Me!

To begin with, IRON MAN 3 kept invoking THE AVENGERS - a far, far better film - almost offhandedly, like it was trying to get street cred through association and talking the proverbial talk without walking the proverbial walk. It started off promising.  Robert Downey Jr. (because all attempts at inhabiting the being of another character - otherwise known as "acting" - have been thoroughly abandoned for this film) was having panic attacks induced by his experiences at the Battle of New York in the climax of THE AVENGERS, and it seemed like the filmmakers were going to use this as the emotional core of the film and explore some heavy shit like PTSD in the midst of the usual explosions and big noises.

Two major problems arose almost immediately from this development. First, it quickly became apparent that the panic attacks were conveniently inserted into the narrative to periodically remind viewers that this film was loosely related to THE AVENGERS and were not coherently integrated into the narrative or the "character."  Eventually, the whole PTSD thing was just kind of dropped by the wayside. I know IRON MAN 3 wasn't meant to be an opus on mental health issues, but just for the sake of internal consistency couldn't they have addressed it in some way other than "I confronted my fear/anxiety in my own mind. Now I'm suddenly cured and don't have to mention or acknowledge it ever again or have any other character, like my girlfriend who was extremely concerned about my wellbeing earlier, address it either."

The other problem that mentioning THE AVENGERS presented was that IRON MAN 3 posed a very important question that it never even attempted to answer: Where the fuck are the rest of Tony's/Downey Jr.'s already-established superhero friends?  In the film, there are an alarming number of terrorist attacks both abroad and on US soil, increasing in both frequency and magnitude, and none of the other Avengers has shit to say?  Thor's up in Valhalla or some shit, but you've got the Hulk, the golden boy Captain America, and even Black Widow and Hawkeye along with all of their S.H.I.E.L.D buddies for that matter.  But I guess if it's not faceless, nondescript aliens from space who seem to exist on a single neural network, then it's not worth your fucking time?  Hell, all it would have taken was a news cast in the background or Nick Fury calling in to let him know that everybody was tied up on a super-secret mission to stop a tactical nuclear strike from North Korea or prevent the rise of the Mole Men or something to at least kind of address the issue.  Instead, that particular thread was just kind of dropped and left hanging like a gangrenous limb on a rotting, undead corpse.

They Call Me Legion McLegionson For I Am Many

I told you if we slept together things would get weird.
This has already been addressed by some like the fine people over at How it Should Have Ended, but it bears repeating because in a movie filled to the brim with glaring plot holes and inconsistencies, this was especially glaring.  In the final, climactic battle between Downey and the unmemorable villain (sorry Guy Pearce, it wasn't you it was the "material") and his unmemorable cronies, he initiates the House Party Protocol, which basically involves dozens of autonomous Iron Man suits to fly around and start kicking some ass.  This is all well and good, but two facts stand out: a) the suits were remotely activated and b) the House Party Protocol was established between Downey Jr. and his virtual butler/superhero collaborator J.A.R.V.I.S (a stunning breakthrough in AI that calls into question the very meaning of life and what it means to be sentient and is thoroughly ignored by everybody) presumably before the events in the film were set into motion. 

This means that at any point in the movie, Downey Jr. could have called an army of robots to help him fuck up the bad guys. This may or may not have come in handy at several points in the narrative, not the least of which was when his mansion that was literally sitting RIGHT ON TOP of this army of advanced cybernetic warriors was attacked by The Mandarin.  Besides the fact that he could have nipped this whole terrorist thing in the bud a hell of a lot sooner, at that point the love of Iron Man's life, and the only person that it was established through three previous films that he truly cares about besides himself, was in mortal peril (Just a little peril…).  You'd think he would have done everything within his power to ensure that no harm even came close to befalling her.  And, in this case, it wouldn't have even been that much effort.  Later in the film, all Downey Jr. does is tell J.A.R.V.I.S "Activate the House Party Protocol" or some shit that was at the most six words and would only have taken a second or two.  At most.

You want an "Iron Man?"
I'm 30% iron, bitches.
Having all of his iron buddies around might also have come in handy when Downey Jr. and his annoying child sidekick were being attacked by a bunch of radioactive, fire-breathing supermen/women, or when a bunch of people were falling from an airplane (Air Force One, of course) and he barely had the resources to rescue them all and was basically just playing a game of chicken when people's lives were on the line, or at literally any point past the first 20 minutes of the movie.  And there's no explanation given whatsoever as to why he couldn't have activated it before.  The audience is left to assume that Downey Jr. was waiting for just the right moment to strike, like showboating for the President of the United States.

Shortround Syndrome

While we're on the topic, I think it's necessary to address the ham-fisted inclusion of a child sidekick character for Downey Jr.  This isn't a plot hole; it's just a narrative device that has become the hallmark of movie franchises desperately trying to reinvigorate the series with some kind of gimmick.  I can't recall an instance when anybody really pulled it off.  The only example I can think of when it even came close to working was INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.  And even then it didn't even really work that well. But in IRON MAN 3, the child sidekick is just rammed into the story so ineloquently and so blatantly and so unnecessarily that it's really jarring to be slapped in the face with, like the balls of the kid sleeping above you on the top bunk at summer camp.  The kid doesn't really do anything or even symbolize anything particular to the narrative.  He's just kind of there as something for Downey Jr. to talk at, but the audience would have gotten the same effect (i.e., exposition) if he had talked to a digital recorder or a blank wall or a naked hairy old wise man in a Turkish bath with stretched-out droopy balls longer than my forearm.

Time to Suit Up, Up, and Away

The Iron Man tech seems to be pretty fucking finicky at the best of times, but in IRON MAN 3 it seems to just randomly work or not to service the poor, sickly, cancer-ridden, emaciated excuse for a plot.  Besides the fact that for the vast majority of the film Downey Jr. is either walking around sans-Iron Man suit trying (and failing) to prove how awesome he can be without it or suited up in the latest (yet somehow crappiest) version that wouldn't even pass the safety inspection at a Ford production line, the use of the suits themselves seems pretty arbitrary.

I mean, Downey Jr. makes some reference to the suits being coded to an individual like him or his best pal Col. Rhodes AKA War Machine/Iron Patriot (Don Cheadle).  But he never says how they're coded, like voice or fingerprint or DNA or dick size based on precision laser measurement to ensure that only one big swinging dick could operate any one machine.  But the Big Bad and his cronies seem to be able to use the suits at their whim, which either means that Stark Enterprises electronic security isn't worth shit or this guy is a master hacker that can bring down a firewall just by winking at it.  Also, earlier in the film, Pepper Potts (Gwynyth Paltrow) just kind of hops into a suit. The movie never makes it clear whether that particular suit was "coded" for Potts, or if they're all coded for her in case of emergency situations, or if it takes less time and effort for Downey Jr. to reprogram a suit than it does for him to activate the House Party Protocol (seriously, six fucking words!).

AVENGERS 2, here I come...
As a side note, why is the US government letting Col. Rhodes continue to be the one to fly around in this untested prototype armour?  Did they just let him keep doing it because, shucks, he was Downey Jr.'s friend who gave it to him "for keepsies?"  Wouldn't they get a whole bunch of their top military guys and evaluate their physical, intellectual, and psychological competencies to see who was best suited to drive this flying tank? Why would it be allowed in service at all?  If any government got their hands on a piece of tech like that, isn't the first thing they would do would be to bury it in a lab somewhere in an Area 51-type installation for the next 20 years running tests and reverse-engineering the shit out of that? Who the fuck authorized a project code-named War Machine where one man was given the miniaturized equivalent of the presidential nuclear launch codes?

Also, I guess these suits aren't powered by the miniature ARC reactor embedded in Tony Stark's/Downey Jr.'s chest that served as a central plot point for the first IRON MAN film.  Now they just seemed to be mass-produced and embedded in each of the Iron Man suits, which really makes it a lot more convenient when bad guys steal one and reprogram it, because now they don't have to worry about powering the fucking thing like the Big Lebowski did in the first film.

It's a bunch of little things, but the effect is cumulative. Taken all together, it's the same as having one huge thing (like Andre the Giant) and pretty soon the dominoes will fall like a house of cards and we're left with a Hulk-sized hole in the rules of the narrative Universe.

Oh My Darling Clementine

Every good hero needs an equally compelling villain to motivate him properly and spew out effective catch phrases for the marketing department to sink their teeth into.  Now, the bad guys seemed sufficiently powerful to provide a challenge for Iron Man, but they were also bland and unmemorable and had absolutely no emotional resonance.  There was no connection between the ultimate villain Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and Iron Man except for the fact that a much younger, much nerdier Killian was rejected by Stark/Downey Jr. years earlier.  As a compadre of mine pointed out, it was exactly the same plot device used in BATMAN FOREVER only they replaced Jim Carry and Val Kilmer with Guy Pierce and Robert Downey Jr.

Any comparison to BATMAN FOREVER is never favorable, but seeing as how Joel Schumacher's two shit-tastic Batman movies did their best to ruin superhero movies for everybody just a couple of decades ago (and now I feel fucking old), you'd think filmmakers working within the genre today would be extra cognizant of those pitfalls. But I guess the minds behind IRON MAN 3 figured they could just throw a bunch of shit up on the screen and eventually something would stick.

You don't fuck with Gandhi, son.
And then there is the completely unremarkable villain "twist" where (SPOILER ALERT, I guess, if you can actually spoil something that's already completely rotten to the core) the terrorist known as the Mandarin turns out to be some clueless actor named Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) hired to throw people off the trail of the real villain Killian I guess. (Although with a name like "Killian," how could this motherfucker not be a villain in a superhero universe? It almost sounds like the name of a terrible James Bond villain.) The whole reasoning behind it is kind of hazy at best, and the subterfuge is never really explained in full.  The thing is, though, that it was totally, totally unnecessary and added nothing to the plot.  There are plenty of real extant terrorist organizations out there either willing to take the credit for or plausible culprits of the attacks, so why not let world governments (and Iron Man for that matter) chase their tails in the Middle East?  In fact, if Killian wanted to remain undetected in the shadows as he claimed, the whole Mandarin charade would actually be detrimental because it would create an unnecessary link back to Killian and another bunch of loose ends to tie up.

As I haven't read a lot of Iron Man comics, I didn't really know anything other than the basic facts about the Mandarin character, so I wasn't overly attached, but it did seem like a big "Fuck you" to long-time fans of the character, and in fact the "twist" really only makes sense in the meta-context of the multi-media Marvel universe where an audience would have any expectation of what the Mandarin might look, sound, or act like.

Wow. There is a Shitload of Shit in Here

Following hot on the heels of THE AVENGERS, it seems that IRON MAN 3 took its cue from the climactic battle from that movie and multiplied it to the Nth degree.  The climax of THE AVENGERS was exciting to watch, but had no real emotional or narrative resonance as the heroes were fighting some insubstantial (both literally as in they were all CGI bullshit without any "weight" behind them and figuratively as in they seemed to go down just by batting an eyelash at them) bad guys with a collective "off switch," one of the worst kinds of video game tropes and a pretty convenient win condition.  In IRON MAN 3, there seemed to be no real stakes involved at all as a bunch of mindless mechanical drones were fighting a bunch of random radioactive men and women, and it was all just a bunch of CGI vomited up on the screen.

I'm not saying that CGI doesn't have its place in modern storytelling, because when used effectively it can become another effective tool to engage or entertain the audience. But the CGI in IRON MAN 3 felt insubstantial the same way that the CGI in the RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES felt insubstantial in that the digital characters clearly existed in another realm from the physical characters.  It was the same insubstantiality that plagued the STAR WARS prequels and, subsequently, my nightmares. And there was no emotional resonance that offered any saving grace. At least the final battle in REVENGE OF THE SITH had some kind of emotional and narrative context as it was basically a fight between two brothers, albeit from different mothers.  Much like the movie itself, the final battle in IRON MAN 3 just seemed to be a lot of random junk sort of cobbled together and then shat out in the general vicinity of the audience's ocular and auditory nerves.

Even the final face-off between Killian and Downey Jr. lacked any emotional resonance, as their only connection was that the latter wronged the former with the real-world equivalent of not accepting a Facebook friend request.  Is the audience supposed to feel some kind of catharsis with the final showdown because some whiny nerd wasn't liked enough by a rich successful nerd? (Also of note here is the complete lack of originality as Killian becomes another rich industrialist counterpart to Downey Jr., almost exactly the same as Sam Rockwell's character in IRON MAN 2…) Sure, Killian kidnapped Downey Jr.'s girlfriend, Pepper Potts, but he was also kind enough to give her the very superpowers that would end up saving the day.  That's actually pretty decent of him, as most villains try to make it as difficult as possible to foil their plans.  All heroes should be so lucky.

Also why not kill the president right away?  Why does it have to be done on live TV?  Killian and his gang of atomic supermen are able to kidnap the president and have him in their clutches with ample time to torture/rape/kill him instead of giving Iron Man one last hail Mary chance to save him.  If you wanted to strike fear into the hearts of the public while staying off the radar, surely displaying the president's filleted corpse SILENCE OF THE LAMBS-style in some public venue (like, the Statue of Liberty, for instance) would have the same effect?  Plus then the president is still dead and you still have the easily manipulated vice-president in power to use to your own ends as was the plan all along.

Finally, why blow up all of the Iron Man suits? It's supposed to be symbolic of his devotion to Pepper Potts, or whatever, but considering the alarmingly increasing number of attacks by super powered beings it seems a bit short-sighted and kind of selfish. Why can't he love his girlfriend and help out with threats to national security and/or human existence as we know it?  Even if he doesn't want to do it, maybe a trusted friend like, oh, I don't know, just off the top of my head, Col. Fucking Rhodes could take up the mantle and Downey Jr. could keep supplying him with tech almost like the relationship between Lucius Fox and Batman.  He just got finished proving how necessary Iron Man actually is what with the final battles in THE AVENGERS and IRON MAN 3, and then he decides "Fuck it!" That's kind of bullshit if you ask me and altogether selfish… almost as if the character had displayed no kind of arc or development whatsoever.  Crazy, I know.

Take this ARC Reactor and Shove It

Not last, and certainly not least, is the conclusion to this little gem of a movie.  I won't touch on the fact that the film just glosses over the remaining plot threads like how Potts' infection with the otherwise incurable Extremis virus - a major element of the movie - is just resolved through a line of dialogue in the closing moments even though it in the previous films it was never established that Stark/Downey Jr. had any leaning towards the field of medicine or prowess thereof.

What I will touch on, however, (Besides your mom. Snootch!) is the whole rushed ending where in, like, the final 30 seconds of IRON MAN 3 Downey Jr. get the ARC reactor thingie surgically removed from his chest.  You know, that thing that he spent two movies perfecting so that it would KEEP HIM THE FUCK ALIVE!  Now it turns out, all of the sudden, that there was a medical alternative this whole time had Stark/Downey Jr. not wanted to live in constant danger of dying an agonizing death from a serious, chronic medical condition.  A procedure that's never hinted at and something that seems to be added merely as an afterthought.

Yeah, admit it, you'd give up being Iron
Man for her too.
I understand that it was supposed to be symbolic of Downey Jr. giving up his crime-fighting ways to show some kind of character development, although it's not clear exactly what it was supposed to be.  Maybe he felt some kind of superhero inadequacy (hey, it happens to the best of us) about needing a suit to be awesome unlike so many of his pals who just were awesome.  Maybe he felt like he didn't need to make up for the sins of his past or of his father any more like it was established he did in the first IRON MAN. Maybe it's because he was trying to prove to his girlfriend that he was a changed man (although, that's a pretty shitty foundation upon which to build a relationship).

It's anybody's guess really. The whole ARC-reactor-in-the-chest thing seemed like a great visual way to show how connected Stark/Downey Jr. was to the Iron Man, how he had internalized and integrated his identity, and how Iron Man was both metaphorically and literally a part of him.  Removing the ARC reactor in and of itself wasn't a bad thing, but it was just out of the fucking blue and tacked on and had no connection to anything that came before it.

Which, I suppose, comes back to the fundamental problem with IRON MAN 3 and that is a total lack of connection, whether it be internally between its logic and consistency or the other films in the shared universe that Marvel is spending so much time trying to build and so much more time trying to continually convince us how awesome it is.  In my mind, IRON MAN 3 is basically the Two Girls One Cup of the Marvel cinematic universe and satisfying to watch only in the same way in which that viral video that began to permeate the Internet back in 2008 was satisfying to most people: it is a testament to one's intestinal fortitude for being willing to watch something so repugnant and a bestowment of bragging rights for having endured it.


IRON MAN 3 isn't the worst movie I've ever witnessed, and certainly not as bad as the SCARY MOVIE series or other Wayans brothers atrocities. But it's pretty close. Final verdict: IRON MAN 3 is a generous 3/10 = One Radioactive Head Exploding in a Crowded Public Place


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